A chapter from Life with an Impossible Person: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Transformation

An Unceremonious Ceremony

“This pain will not end
‘Cause lovin’ you is what I was made for.” – Mary Black

*****

There are kindnesses that go beyond kindness, offerings from strangers that bring a deepening apprehension of gratitude.  In this past two years, there have been people who have given with no expectation of return — sometimes perfect strangers.  Has Philip’s death offered me an opportunity to begin trusting in a more generous world?  This was clearly in evidence just minutes after Philip died in the hospital in Coronado.

*****

When Tanya and I walked out of the room where Philip lay – no longer inhabiting his Philip-ness, a new hospital face appeared amidst all the gentle others who were busying themselves in the hushed efficiency that accompanies hospital death.  This person laid a kindly hand in mine, introduced herself as a supervisory nurse, and said she’d like to talk about how she might help me now.  I vaguely took in and appreciated the emanating kindness but wondered, what can possibly help me now?

In those first minutes following death, Life … or I … stepped back, much as Philip had stepped out and moved on from his body.  My body and mind were wrapped and padded, my hearing oddly muffled. I could barely attend to what was going on around me.  Everything was hushed and stilled, slowed down, even while figures moved purposefully all around us.  Through a quieting cushion that seemed to encase my entire being, I heard Tanya’s voice calmly responding.

“Yes, thank you; we can certainly use some help.”

We walked — this must be what sleep-walking is like — to a private room where we sat across from this gentle presence.  She told me her name. I forgot it.  Sound, sensation, and sensitivity all continued subdued, leaden, muted. I was in some calm underwater or cloud-covered place, as though on calming drugs, but slowly, this gentle woman, whose name I later learned was Diane, emerged from the mists. I heard her asking about next steps.

“What do you want to do with Philip’s body?” she asked.  Fortunately, Tanya had begun to talk to me about this yesterday.  Fortunately, too, a social worker from the hospital had found me yesterday – a hundred years ago yesterday, when Philip was still Philip.  What to do with Philip’s body was exactly what I’d needed to talk about.

*****

As with most everything Philip, this was yet another complicated question. In fact, it continues to trouble me now if I let it.  When Philip was alive and well — or not so well, our discussions of what to do with our bodies when we died were usually skipped through with a bit of joking and a lot of avoidance.  Both his parents had been cremated, and that seemed like the simplest and least disturbing option to me.  The idea of moldering away in a box in the earth holds no appeal for me, nor do I like the idea of taking up needed land with gravesites and cemeteries.  Moreover, cremation made the most sense for two people who’d been as transient as we’d been over the past 37 years. We hadn’t purchased plots and had no idea where we’d want them if we had.  Nonetheless, Philip repeatedly objected to cremation on esoteric and ecological grounds.

“Bodies are supposed to return to the earth, spirits given their own time to rise,” he’d say.

“But burial is ecologically disastrous,” I’d reply.

“There are ecologically friendly ways now,” he said. “Cemeteries without gravestones, just nice green parks. No embalming or lead-lined coffins.  So, your body goes quickly back into the earth.  You return to the ground, your body nourishes the earth, and your soul or spirit has the time it needs to understand that it’s no longer in the body.”

“And where are we going to find one of these friendly places?  And how much do they cost?”

“Well, as they say, google it,” he’d laugh.

Ach … Philip, you’re impossible.”

“I’m hungry. We can bury ourselves later. Let’s have lunch.”

*****

Of course, we never did google it, nor did we ever make a set plan.  And now here we were – me in and he out of his body — in San Diego.   Where was an ecological cemetery?  I googled it, tears blurring my sight and laughing ruefully with Tanya at the absurdity of searching the internet for eco-friendly burial sites.

“Ok, I found one out in Joshua Tree – about 3 hours or 160 miles from here,” I announced.

“Joan, do you know what that will cost … just to transport his body there?”

“They don’t list transportation prices,” I said. “Wait. Here’s a compare-prices-site for green burials in California! Can you believe it? What next? The range is between $3500 – $6500. But no transportation included.”

“Joan,” she said, “I hate to be harsh but be realistic.  How are you going to pay for all that?”

“Yes … and even worse, who’s going to visit his ecological site with no headstone once I leave here?”

“True,” she said.

“But what about his wishes?” I asked and burst into tears yet again.

“Even in his passing,” Tanya mused, “he’s causing trouble.”

We leaned against one another, our tears mixing in bitter-sweet laughter.

Of course, Tanya was right.  A visit to the hospital’s business office the day before had informed me that an $82,000 hospital bill was looming.  I talked, and Tanya listened.  In the end, I agreed cremation was the simplest, most realistic, and least expensive option.

But what about his wishes?

When the hospital social worker appeared at my side the next day, I asked her, “How can I go against what he’s clearly said time and time again, and what I do I tell him?”

She suggested simply saying, “I know what you want, and I will do my best. Your body will be treated with respect and love.”

“That’s it?  Don’t say … ‘I can’t manage to pay for a burial?’ Don’t say, ‘I don’t know where to put you?’ Don’t say, ‘How can I bury you here in California with no one here to look after you once I’ve gone?’”

“Nope. Just tell him that you love him, and you’ll care for him in the most loving way.”

Does any of this stop being more strange and disquieting than I can say?

In fact, I never had the opportunity to tell him anything.  He was never conscious again.  This all continues to make me very uneasy.  The black and white of it is … I had his body cremated when he expressly said he didn’t want to be cremated.  That’s hard to live with.  I mean, this isn’t a minor decision about whether or not to eat a chocolate bar.  This is his body … and no one really knows – at an esoteric level – what cremation might mean to the spirit or soul.

However, utterly uncomfortable as it is, and much as I’ll hate this … probably forever, it’s done, and, obviously, can’t be undone.

Philip, have you forgiven me from where you are now?

*****

There is a good side, even to this tale if I turn back to the nurse, Diane, who’d offered unlooked for kindness. It came in the unlikely form of a boat.  In answer to her question about what I wanted to do with Philip’s body, I explained my quandary, expecting her either to laugh or sigh with impatience. Surely, she had more important things to deal with than a crazy conflict between Philip’s philosophy and my failing finances.

“When Philip and I argued about cremation versus burial,” I told her, ‘I’d say but we have no place to bury you ecologically.’  At which point, he’d pause and tilt an annoying eyebrow.

‘Well then, just put me in a canvas bag and drop me into the sea,’ he’d say.

“Many of these conversations,” I continued to explain to Diane, “took place in Colorado, where there is no handy sea in which to drop Philip in his canvas bag. ‘And where does one buy a canvas body bag?’ I’d ask him in exasperation.  But this was typically where the conversations would fall into laughing mini-wrestling matches and then conveniently move on to something more important, like lunch. “

This angelic woman listened and didn’t laugh or sigh.

“You know,” she said, “there are plenty of us who live here by the sea who share Philip’s bury-me-at-sea-fantasy.  If you’re willing to go ahead with the cremation, my husband and I own a sail-boat, and I’m sure Greg would be happy to take you and Philip out on our boat.  You could drop his ashes into the sea, and in that way, you’d be honoring his wishes … at least, half way.”  Tanya and I looked at each other in amazement, and then all three of us burst into relieved and delighted laughter.

So … that was the compromise and the plan, Philip.

*****

Tanya and I went back to the condo, where she began calling around to find the quickest, least expensive cremation services.  She found one that was willing to take Philip’s body from the hospital to the crematorium, do what they do, and then meet me back at the hospital in a few days with the ashes in their simplest urn for $822.  My job was to keep calling and pushing all kinds of city and county offices to sign off on the death certificate.

In the meantime, I arranged a tentative date with Greg to sail at the end of the week.  The idea that I’d be setting out into San Diego Bay on a sailboat with a total stranger to do this never-before-done-thing of dropping Philip into the sea was less unsettling than you might imagine.  After all, at this point, I was still often walking about numbly wrapped in mists and clouds or swimming fathoms deep, surrounded by underwater creatures — nowhere real, solid, or familiar.  Moreover, my heart was doing this strange dance of stepping out for hours at a time, leaving me dazed or disoriented … forgetful of where I was or what had happened.  Perhaps, this is what the body/mind does naturally in response to shocking sorrow, somewhat akin to the I.V. drip of morphine that eased Philip’s final hours and his passage to the beyond.

At other times, my heart would emerge, and I would go from numbly but outwardly normal to a sudden clobbering pummeling of pain.  One problem with this is – as people who have grieved know only too well – I never knew when the punches would come. All too often, they happened in a public place: standing in front of a pile of oranges in the health food store, walking down a sunlit, flower-bedecked street of boutiques and gelato shops in chic Coronado, stopping to watch children fly kites in a park overlooking the bay. One minute I looked like everyone else out for a pleasant day, and the next I was catapulted out of ‘normal’ and flattened in a downpour of drenching emotion. The saving grace was that living within an ongoing and disorienting state of anguish and disbelief, barely recognizing myself, I didn’t notice, or, for that matter care about the reactions of those around me.  Grief brings temporary release from self-consciousness.

*****

Tanya stayed longer than planned, not wanting to leave me alone to deal with my last days in Coronado, especially, perhaps, the burial at sea.  But grateful as I was for her help, shared grief, and the practical to-do lists she made for me each morning, I needed time alone.  It turned out I had four days in between her departure and my own plan to go back to New York to spend time with my mother and contemplate my totally un-contemplatable life.

There were bureaucratic delays in getting all the official signatures needed for cremation, and much as I wanted this all to be done, I found some ease in the extra days and anonymity as I wandered aimlessly about Coronado.  It’s a lovely place: perfect weather, friendly people, quaint, comfortable, and human-sized architecture. I even looked at rental signs.  The idea of being in a place, totally unknown to anyone was appealing when I dreaded dealing with the sympathetic faces waiting for me back east.  I went to a salon for a badly needed haircut and had a long, teary, and sympathetic talk with the stylist, who invited me to join her backyard yoga class that evening.  More California kindness.

At last, I discovered that the hold-up for the necessary signatures was at the hospital; the doctors still hadn’t determined the final cause of death or hadn’t agreed on what they could write down. Even now, I don’t think they knew whether Philip had a cancerous tumor, an infection, or something else entirely. Without surgery, they couldn’t really know.  When it finally came, the death certificate listed as causes of death …

  • septic shock
  • pneumonia
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

I suspect that COPD may have been the simplest, safest designation for the undiagnosed something in his lung.

A whole life and death summed up in bullet points?

*****

Eventually, all was settled, and I arranged to meet the man from the cremation services at the hospital.  About to walk out of the condo with only the key and a check in my pocket, I realized I’d have to carry the urn back with me.  In what does one carry a funerary urn as one walks down a sunny afternoon street?  Sighing, starting to giggle hysterically at the absurdity, and choking it off with tears, I emptied my backpack of the oranges, pineapple, and salad greens I’d just bought, and set out to fill my empty pack with a load the likes of which it had never seen.

The cremation man (what are those people officially called?), actually dressed in the proverbial dark, pinstriped suit, was waiting for me on a bench in front of the hospital. I looked down at my sandals and tatty sweatshirt and wondered if I should have ‘dressed’ for the occasion.

“I guess you aren’t exactly a good advertisement for the hospital,” I managed to say.

“No,” he replied, “I thought it would be better to meet outside.”  Did he smile sheepishly?  He was empty-handed, and I suppose my question showed on my face.

“I don’t have any experience with this kind of thing.  What do we do now? And where’s Philip?”

He walked me over to his car and opened the trunk.  At this point, a surreal fantasy flashed through my delirium: this feels like a drug deal.  Feeling giddy and about to get hysterical again, while trying to maintain an appropriate level of sobriety, I bit my lip and told myself to get a grip while he rummaged about in his trunk.

First, he handed me an envelope with what he called the necessary documentation. I signed some papers held out to me on a clipboard, and in exchange for the now rumpled check, he handed me a gaudy, fake-velvet red bag weighing more than I would have imagined possible.  In response to the dumb incomprehension on my face as I stared down at the burden he’d deposited in my hands, he explained gently, as if to an idiot.

“The box inside the red bag is the urn.”

With one momentary meeting of sympathetic eyes and a firm funereal handshake, I slipped the urn in its horrible bag into my pack, waved goodbye, and walked away.  With late afternoon sun shining down on the burden I now carried on my back, I felt Philip’s heavy presence as oddly comforting, if somewhat unsettling. Back at the condo, I unpacked the tawdry parcel, placing it on the table amidst the oranges. I felt so stupefied I didn’t feel the tears on my face for a few minutes.  No one prepares us for this.

*****

The next morning, Greg picked me up according to plan and drove us to his dock.  He was a perfect blend of friendliness, decorousness, and matter-of-fact practicality.  We boarded a lovely white sailboat and headed out into San Diego Bay in the direction of the bridge.  He kept up a comfortable banter of small talk and boating information which distracted me from what we were doing.  In about 20 minutes, we got to an open space near the bridge.

“Does this look all right?” he asked.

“Sure,” I answered.  “But is this legal?”  It hadn’t occurred to me to ask this before.

“Well, if it isn’t, no one will be the wiser, so, no problem.”

I took the awful red bag out of my pack and put it into his hands.

“This will sink, won’t it?”

“I don’t see why not.”

We paused for a moment of silence, and then I dropped Philip in his box into the bay.  I was in one of those my-heart-has-gone-elsewhere-moments when it hit the water.  I watched it go under… and … watched it surreally bob back up.  We stared at it, stared at one another. I hardly knew whether to laugh or cry.

“What now?”  I looked out at a row of mansions all along the nearest shore.  “Is Philip going to wash up in someone’s backyard tomorrow morning?” I asked, walking a tightrope between hilarity and horror.

Starting up the engine, Greg slowly followed the bobbing box that was already being carried by the current. With a pole in one hand and hat tilting crazily over his nose, he repeatedly and apologetically attempted to push and hold the box under.

“I’m so sorry,” he said.

Down it went … and up it came.  When he nearly fell into the water, my hysteria rose again.  I buried my face in my hands. With irrepressible laughter shaking my body (God, Joan, must you?), poor Greg assumed I was sobbing.  He was distraught. When I realized what I’d done to the poor guy, I tried to comfort him as the misinterpreted tears rolled down my face.

“Listen,” I said, “We can either see this as horrific or absurd.  Let’s choose absurd.  Philip would.”  He nodded and made a few more failed attempts with the pole.

“Would you mind if I drive the boat over it?” he asked.

“No, no, … fine. Please, let’s just get it to stay under.”

The box, by this time, had freed itself from its bag; I knew Philip would hate that bag. Greg fished the sodden red mess from the water and discretely tossed it out of sight below deck.  When we dared to move the boat, the box was finally under … and staying … under.  With a huge sigh of relief, Greg unfurled the sails and made me the captain (borrowed hat and all).

Sunlight glinting off the water, the boat gliding white and soundless – we sailed companionably back to shore.  What an unceremonious ceremony! Philip, I thought, my irascible trickster, you’ve had your last laugh.

24 thoughts on “A chapter from Life with an Impossible Person: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Transformation

      1. “Touching, sad, and even funny …” That’s precisely what Philip was in my life … from start to finish. Thanks, for your words and your caring, David. love.

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  1. This is an emotionally challenging piece in that it reminds me of the ambiguous reactions many of us have to tragedy, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, to frown or smile when confronting pain, loss, or any of the other serious curveballs life sends our way. Excellent writing from the heart. Thanks for sharing it Joan.

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    1. Yes, Liam. “Whether to laugh or cry, frown or smile…” that pretty well sums it up. Life is a ride through pathos and humor. Wouldn’t have it any other way. Thanks for your thoughts and encouragement, Liam.

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  2. In an odd twist of timing on the other side of the continent I was bobing in the Atlantic ocean reveling in some of the best sunfilled surf the east coast offers, as a single dolphin seemed to swim abnormally close with such a playful, calming feeling of the joy of being FREE IN THE SEA.

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    1. Oh, wow! Maybe it was him? her? all the freed beings we’ve loved and let free? Thank you so much for this! Love you, darlin’ boy of my boy.

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  3. I had to laugh outloud at the image of Philip bobbing up again and refusing to sink. It is so Philip!! And the pivot between horror and absurdity is one I’m familair with. Your description was marvelous and uplifting (excuse the pun). I too buried my Mum’s ashes at sea, and went out on my brother’s sailboat, but instead of scattering her into the water, the wind was so high she ended up being scattered all over me. When we got to shore, I looked like I’d been in a limestone quary. Gotta laugh.

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    1. Oh, hey … And your story is so … Beth!! I love it and love you for sharing and caring and … laughing … cause, as you say, we “gotta!”

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  4. I started to tear up when I began reading this chapter. When the Urn kept resurfacing I got an eerie feeling. I wonder if the thought that Phillip was trying to tell you something ever crossed your mind?

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    1. Yes. It felt to me like he was saying, “Don’t take this all too hard or too seriously. A body is just a coat for your soul. You wear it for as long as you need it. And then you just slip it off and go free.”

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  5. Death is so hard to talk about and even more difficult to write about. Your story succeeds in expressing exactly what you wanted to express and to accomplish. It introduces Philip to those who didn’t know him, while it successfully teaches us what it’s like to have a loved one die amidst generous strangers. Your story invited us on your journey to solve the problem of how to get rid of a dead body. Very funny and thank you. Perhaps your next book will be a mystery.
    Michelle Rogers

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    1. For some strange tech-glitchy reason — my niece refers to it as “the monster in the machine” — I never saw this response until today when she helped me to see this “underside” of the website. Thank you so much for responding to my blog post. It means so much to me. And … when your response is so “Michelle” — honest, supportive, insightful, and humorous — well, it makes my day.

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  6. Such a beautiful piece! I can imagine Philip’s face…His eyebrow raised. I see you on the sail boat with that stubborn urn bobbing up and down! Your words had me crying, laughing, sighing and smiling. Thank you for sharing. Wishing you love and peace.

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    1. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment on this excerpt. I can’t believe — and it makes me so happy — that you can picture Philip with his raised eyebrow :). And if the chapter made you cry, laugh, sigh, and smile — you’ve made my (writer’s) day! Trying to articulate the humor and pathos of those final days is precisely what I was hoping to do. Sending love back to you.

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  7. Thanks so much for taking the time to share your response to the excerpt. Next to having a way to articulate the images and voices in my head –hearing readers’ reactions, learning what touched them, and what reached them is one of the great satisfactions of writing.

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